I had had great misconceptions about the opportunity for hiking in Florida. Even after having read "50 Weird Hikes" by Art Bernstein I still did not quite comprehend the outdoors of Florida. I understood the Everglades, the beaches, the waterways that whorl around coastal islands. I did not appreciate the open country of the Florida swamps. Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, Ft Meyers cover the landscape of Florida with man made structures, the false nature of golf courses, gardens, and fruit groves, but in between all of these are thousands of acres of swamps and grasslands. I'd never taken a close look at the map of Florida before, but when I did I saw the tracts of green between the scars of silver.
Probably the last big vacation we'll take for a few years put us in Orlando. No, Disney and the theme parks are not our speed. The Kennedy Space Center was more like it. If you have a single drop of geek blood and have not been to the Space Center, shame on you. Don't wait like I did.
One of the days, of course, had to be set aside for a hike. I pretty much refuse to go on vacations that don't include hikes in the woods, mountains, or swamps. Based out of Orlando, there are several choices, but the one that seemed to be the most remote within easy driving distance is the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve of Florida.
At 110,000 acres Green Swamp the Green Swamp comprises 5 tracts of land including Colton State Park. Fishing, camping, hiking, biking, horse riding, boating, paddling and hunting are the main activities in the Green Swamp. The Florida National Scenic Trail cuts diagonally across the preserve.
The West Tract (http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/recreation/areas/greenswamp-west.html) offered us a good set of hiking trails within just a little over an hour drive from Orlando. We made our way to the Mc Neil Entrance off CR 471. From Orlando take I-4 to exit 32 and take US 98 N. Follow th e highway through populated areas. After some time you'll pass by Central Florida Paintball. Stop if you must, but otherwise keep on the highway. The highway heads sharply Northwest at this point. Just after Gator Creek Campground you'll pass by Rockridge Rd. This also offers some entrances into the Green Swamp, but keep going. Eventually you'll see the signs for CR 471 and a right turn to head straight North. I do mean straight.
After 4 miles a parking lot for Colton State Park will be on the left. Next comes a small bridge crossing and then immediately on the left is the McNeil Entrance to Green Swamp West. The trail starts under the arch, but is riven over by a firebreak. Walk the firebreak South for about 30 feet and the trail heads off into the wooded swamp land.
|Lot and Entrance|
This Winter has been nearly devoid of appreciable rainfall in Florida and the results were easy to see in the swamp. The trail and path were very dry. The palm fronds, though green, were tough and sharp. The trail was liberally peppered with dry leaves. Sneaking up on the egrets in the small pond was impossible. Still, not all of them flew away at our approach.
Within twenty minutes of being on the trail we were treated to different creatures found in the swamp, wild pigs and egrets. The pigs came out of nowhere on the trail Two black spots 15 feet in front of us. Mama and baby stood by the trail for only one or two seconds, long enough for us to figure out what we were looking at. Then they were gone into the low palms that covered the swamp.
The egrets were something we caught out of the corner of our eyes. Just a little bit of white that seemed out of place. About 100ft off the trail was a small pond. On the other side were a dozen or more of these specimens. One my favorite things about paddling the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi are the heron and egrets. Eagles are great. So are owls and hawks, and cardinals, and...
We briefly caught an owl flying past us later on. Heron made appearances along the way as well. I almost stepped on a toad. Had Stefan not been looking I would have squashed the poor thing hiding under leaves.
The day was proving to be an excellent one for hiking. The temp topped out around 67F with almost no wind and no clouds. That is right inside my wheelhouse.
The trail winds along past water holes, many of them bone dry. We kept imagining what animal life would be here in a rainy month. No alligators today.
The trail crosses a dirt road several times, a few times the trail followed the road. We had to be sure to look for the trail signs as it exited back into the vegetation. The trail was very well marked and at no time on the trail did we wonder which way to go. A little different on the way back, though.
The trees kept my attention. I didn't really know what kind of trees I was looking at. Clearly some of them were a type of fir, some a type of oak, and yes, ever present are the palms. Often we walked through patches where long white strands of moss draped down large trees. I was simply fascinated by how beautiful these were.
Almost halfway through the hike we came across three cactus plants growing right by the trail/road. Both plants were small and stayed nearly flat to the ground. They each covered only several inches of the ground. We saw no other cactus anywhere on the trail that day.
A little more than 3 miles in we hit the "troll" bridge and our turn-around point. We had one kid waiting back at the hotel and it would be dark in three hours. Our plan was to make the bridge and head back. Naturally, my hope would have been for a 12 to 15 mile day in the swamp. Hit the trail at 8am and get off the trail before the sun left the sky. But... had to moderate that desire with other's willingness and the fact I wasn't on vacation alone!! So, back we went. My back was in really bad shape nearly the whole time we were there, especially this day. So, turning back was probably good for me too.
We re-traced our steps for the first couple miles. At one point we decided to take the road instead for a change-up. The trail crossed the road in several places. We were sure we'd pick up the trail again down the road. We were not patient enough and decided that we must have gone past the last place the road and trail met. Despite having a GPS we were worried about travelling to far South and having to backtrack. With dark only 2 hours away we took a cross road that went directly East. The GPS showed we were still North of the trailhead, so we had no worries. Either this east-bound dirt road would intersect the trail, or we'd hit the highway and half to hoof it for a half mile on pavement. East we went.
Glad we did. We saw a bit of eco-diversity. On the left side was a swamp that had recently undergone a controlled burn. The right side was the swamp untouched for a few years. Being able to compare the environments close at hand was interesting.